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The case of the wandering Russian watch

As I write, the hammer is falling on a hapless editor in the offices of the Moscow Patriarchate for airbrushing a watch off of the wrist of Patriarch Cyril. The doctored photo of Cyril and the disappearing watch has been a gift to the Moscow press corps, prompting a flurry of arch and knowing stories written at the expense of the Russian Orthodox Church. The coverage reveals as much about the mindset of some reporters as it does about Muscovite media morals. The article from the New York Times is a classic of its kind, a macedoine of self-righteousness, ignorance and cant served up in a context-free bowl. It is an op-ed piece masquerading as news.

If you examine the photos taken from the Patriarchate's website, you can see a watch on Cyril's wrist. This photo was doctored to remove the watch, but the editor omitted to remove the watch's reflection. Eagle-eyed bloggers spotted the reflection and called out the church's press office. They have since removed the watch free photo from the website replacing it with the original.

Photo-doctoring has a long history in Russia and has been driven by politics (removing non-persons from history) and embarrassment. David King's 1999 book, "The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia," is the best treatment I have seen of this topic.

"So much falsification took place during the Stalin years that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs,'' King wrote. The cover of the book shows a photograph of Stalin with three revolutionary leaders. Over time the photograph is airbrushed, cropped and clipped until Stalin alone is left, conveying the message that it was Stalin who owned the heritage of the revolution.

Other falsifications were less sinister. One of my favorites is a photo of Nikita Khrushchev arriving at Idlewild. The original photo shows the Russian premier hat-less. Sovfoto improved the picture by placing a hat on his head -- but neglected to airbrush out from the photo the hat Khrushchev was holding in his hand. Nikkie Two-Hats.

One of the iconic photos from the Second World War was manipulated to prevent embarrassment. The photo of the Russian soldier raising the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was edited by photographer Yevgeny Khaldei before publication. To counter charges the Russian army had looted its way to Berlin, Khaldei removed the multiple wrist watches appearing on both arms of the officer standing below the flag.

Sixty-seven years later Moscow photo editors are still removing wristwatches.

Let's see what the New York Times did with this story. The article entitled "$30,000 Watch Vanishes Up Church Leader’s Sleeve" begins:

Facing a scandal over photographs of its leader wearing an enormously expensive watch, the Russian Orthodox Church worked a little miracle: It made the offending timepiece disappear.

Editors doctored a photograph on the church’s Web site of the leader, Patriarch Kirill I, extending a black sleeve where there once appeared to be a Breguet timepiece worth at least $30,000. The church might have gotten away with the ruse if it had not failed to also erase the watch’s reflection, which appeared in the photo on the highly glossed table where the patriarch was seated.

The church apologized for the deception on Thursday and restored the original photo to the site, but not before Patriarch Kirill weighed in, insisting in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn the watch, and that any photos showing him wearing it must have been doctored to put the watch on his wrist.

Why is this story shoddy journalism? Let me count the ways -- but before I do remember the purpose of this blog is to discuss reporting on religion. It is not to discuss the issues in the underlying story.

Let's begin with the lede. The author frames the story from the start as a scandal about the church hiding Cyril's $30,000 Breguet watch through the magic of photo editing software. The news of the alteration of the photo is presented, followed by the assertion from Cyril that he was not wearing the Breguet watch; and if there is a photo of him wearing the watch Cyril claims the photo was doctored. The construction of this lede is to impeach Cyril by words out of his own mouth showing him to be a liar.

But was Cyril wearing the Breguet watch? Notice the Times says it appears he was, but there is no evidence or comment from a horologist to say the watch in the photo is the Breguet watch. Later in the story we hear Cyril say that he was wearing an inexpensive Russian watch when the photo was taken, and that he received the Breguet watch as a gift. If he was not wearing the Breguet, why remove the watch from the photo? I don't know, and the Times does not try to find out.  The inferences and half truths offered at the start of the story have framed the narrative such that the reader will conclude Cyril is a hypocrite.

Having set the frame, the Times editorializes in earnest.

The controversy, which erupted Wednesday when attentive Russian bloggers discovered the airbrushing, further stoked anger over the church’s often lavish displays of wealth and power. It also struck yet another blow to the moral authority of Russian officialdom, which has been dwindling rapidly in light of recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.

A series of opinions mixed with general observations is then produced in support of the crooked cleric theme.

... Over the past decade, the church has grown immensely powerful, becoming so close to the Kremlin that it often seems like a branch of government. It has extended its influence into a broad range of public life, including schools, courts and politics. Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Vladimir V. Putin in last month’s presidential election.

... Then there is the question of the church’s wealth. Russian bloggers have published rumors that the patriarch has a large country house, a private yacht and a penchant for ski vacations in Switzerland, though none of this has been proved.

The watch, on the other hand, has been an object of fascination for years, and there is little question of its existence. It was first sighted on the patriarch’s wrist in 2009 during a visit to Ukraine, where he gave a televised interview on the importance of asceticism.

A Breguet watch “is virtually a sine qua non of any depiction of the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie or, quite simply, a life of luxury and elegance,” the company says, noting that its products have been worn by Marie Antoinette and Czar Aleksandr I and cited in works by Dumas and Hugo.

... But the patriarch has presented himself as the country’s ethical compass, and has recently embarked on a vocal campaign of public morality, advocating Christian education in public schools and opposing abortion and equal rights for gay people. He called the girl punk band protest at the cathedral “sacrilege.”

Without offering any supporting evidence, the Times asserts the Russian Orthodox Church is in bed with the Putin regime. The church possesses vast wealth and Cyril jets around to Switzerland for the skiing, tools around in his yacht and weekends in the country. And, by the way, he wears a watch worn by the same firm that supplied Marie Antoinette. This is really crude. Cyril is a villain in Times-land. He supports school prayer, is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-women. All that is missing from the Times' roster of pet pieties is a comment about his views on minorities.

The articles tries to tie the vanishing watch into a commentary about Russia's moral decline, linking the Russian Orthodox Church to public concerns about "recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption." How do we know that Russian public opinion believes there is a link between the church and the scandals? There may be individuals who say this, but does Russia say this? No evidence is offered to substantiate this opinion.

The Times offers four voices against the church, and one in favor to flesh out the controversy, beginning with:

Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption crusader, called the episode “shameful,” and bloggers gleefully ridiculed the church as hypocritical.

The choice of Aleksei Navalny is as interesting for the omission the Times makes about Navalny as is Navalny's opinion.

In January Navalny was the victim of a doctored photo scam in the press concocted by Putin supporters. A photo of Navalny with Russian oligarch  Mikhail Prokhorov (the photo on the left) was altered to that of Navalny and another oligarch (the photo on the right), Boris Berezovsky -- a fugitive from corruption charges who lives in London. In an attempt to smear Navalny with charges of guilt by association with one of the Russian media's chief villains, the caption to the doctored photo stated:  "Alexei Navalny has never hidden that Boris Berezovsky gives him money for the struggle with Putin."

Adding this information about Navalny's experience of being a victim of press photo doctoring would have given context to the story -- as would mention of the Russian penchant for fixing photos to create the preferred reality. There is no context to this story, no sense of history, no balance, no understanding of Russia, its people, culture or politics.

Let me say that I am not defending the actions of the Russian Orthodox Church's press office in making the questionable watch vanish. What I am concerned with is the integrity of the reporting about that incident -- and the preference for slotting in facts to support a story's theme as against allowing the facts to tell the story.

An anecdote about the French novelist Balzac bears on this point. Balzac was talking to a visitor about the heroes of his novels. The subject changed to political and other events of the day. After a pause Balzac suddenly said: "Let's return to reality," and started talking about his characters again.

It may well be that Cyril is a crook and the Russian Orthodox Church is a tool of the Putin-regime. The Times may think so and has written an article assuming that this is so, but has not provided any evidence in support of its contentions. All of the materials -- the facts, the history, the setting, the new post-Soviet Russia of Vladimir Putin -- are there for a great article. That story has yet to be written.

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